Groundbreaking food journalist
Wednesday 29 March 2006
Michael Bateman, writer and food journalist: born Richmond, Surrey 25 March 1932; married first Jane Deverson (two sons; marriage dissolved), (one son, one daughter with Vivien Tandy), second 1978 Heather Maisner (one son, one daughter); died London 26 March 2006.
Michael Bateman wrote about food, becoming one of the most eminent and admired of present-day food writers. But it was a strange thing to want to do, back in the 1950s, when he started out. Britain was still suffering from post-war austerity. A meal out meant roast beef and cabbage cooked to death, with none of that funny stuff foreigners ate, such as garlic - ugh, horrible. He wanted to write about food as a subject, not in the sense of recipes, but food, the eating of, the contents of, the use of, the history of. He saw food as a serious subject, worthy of serious space.
I first met him in 1958, when he was a young journalist on the Durham Advertiser, and I was a student at Durham, editing Palatinate, the university newspaper. He invited me for a meal in his hovel on Claypath. He made a curry, something I'd never had before, presuming it was merely a funny foreign powder, not a dish, and insisted on telling me its history, where he had got each ingredient, how he had cooked it. Later, at a lunch for several people, he made a paella, which again was new to me. It seemed to take him for ever, but he kept everyone amused with stories and drinks and bits, though, after three hours' waiting, I went out secretly for a meat pie, then returned for the paella.
Potty, I thought. Real men, in 1958, were not interested in food, either cooking it or talking about it. And, as for real journalists, I couldn't see how anyone would ever survive as a hack by writing about such a pansy, piddling subject.
In Durham, he was a familiar sight around Palace Green, walking about with his flaxen hair and his scruffy, second-hand overcoat which seemed to make his shoulders about six feet wide. We organised skiffle parties together. I passed on student stories for his newspaper and he told me, to my amazement, that there were two national graduate training schemes for would-be journalists, neither of which I had known about, one run by Kemsley Newspapers (later Thomson Newspapers), the other run by Westminster Press - the one he had joined.
Michael Bateman was born in 1932 and went to Abingdon School in Oxfordshire and then Pembroke College, Oxford, where he read English. He had done his National Service in Hong Kong, as a second lieutenant, which was where he first became interested in cooking.
From the local paper in Durham, he eventually moved to Fleet Street and then The Sunday Times, where we met up again as colleagues. He started writing about food on the features pages, where I was in charge at one time of his articles. He would produce long pieces on saffron, a new substance to most people, but made it totally riveting. He was the first journalist I was aware of to write detailed exposés of food additives.
He clearly loved researching his food articles, disappearing for days if not weeks, covering every possible angle, talking to every expert. In those days on The Sunday Times, you were allowed to take forever, if it sounded a reasonable story. But, to many other journalists, Bateman's obsessions were pretty daft, if not weird. Then slowly they began to realise that he had become an expert in, perhaps even the creator of, a new branch of journalism - food journalism. It was a subject national newspapers had scarcely bothered with before.
Later, while still on The Sunday Times, where he became editor of "Lifespan" on the magazine, he launched a national campaign for Real Bread, which later, in 1982, turned into a book, The Sunday Times Book of Real Bread.
His first cooking book appeared in 1966, Cooking People, which was an ingenious idea, combining biographical interviews with the main cookery writers of the day, such as Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier, André Simon and Marguerite Patten, plus some of their recipes. Getting a proper interview with Elizabeth David was a coup in itself.
It wasn't his first book. Michael Bateman's other, if minor, passion was cartooning and he had already produced a book about leading cartoonists called Funny Way to Earn a Living (1966). In all, he published around a dozen books on cooking, including The World's Best Food (1981), Round the World in Recipes (1993) and Street Cafe Brazil (1999). His last book, The World of Spice, was published in September 2003. "Best thing I've done," he told me. "I loved every word."
Michael Bateman was the food writer of The Independent on Sunday from its creation in 1990 and during that time won many awards and commendations, notably the Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year in 2000. He was a great traveller, determined, if he was writing about coffee, for example, to get to Brazil and see the stuff growing. He would even pay his own way, if he couldn't wangle it otherwise. Now that's something journalists rarely do.
His personal life was at one time very complicated, not to say shambolic. His first marriage was to Jane Deverson, daughter of the Sunday Times picture editor, and an author in her own right, by whom he had two sons. He also had another relationship which produced two children. The existence of this other family, living in the country, came as a surprise to all his friends.
When his first marriage disintegrated, he lived alone for some time, in some chaos, living a fairly wild life. On his travels, which included Latin America, he started a collection of plastic bags, trying to get one each from some of the world's major shops, mainly in the food line. A unique collection, which no one else had thought of. They were all thrown out one day by his cleaner, who thought she was doing him a favour, trying to reduce the squalor in his flat.
His second marriage, to Heather Maisner, a publisher's editor and children's writer, whom he met in 1973, turned out to be hugely happy and successful - and it also produced two children. He managed to be involved with the lives of all six of his children and remained close to them all.
For 25 years, he had been a model of healthy living, sensible drinking and eating, with lots of exercise. When I last had lunch with him, he looked as fit and vibrant as when I had first met him in his twenties, his face no more crinkly, still liable to be convulsed with laughter at the slightest excuse, still as enthusiastic as ever, without an ounce of cynicism. When I was ill once, with jaundice, he arrived at my sick bed, where I was surrounded by flowers, holding an enormous cabbage. It sat at the end of my bed for three weeks.
The accident which led to his death was sudden, banal and appalling. In September 2003, he was walking across a quiet rural road outside his country home in Norfolk, having said goodbye to some friends, watched from the house by his wife Heather, when he was hit by a motor car. He never recovered.
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